It was probably around Easter time. War was eating its fill of lives and arms and legs and minds along the Western Front.
Far from those horrific scenes and sounds, along a remote dirt road in southern Erie County, quiet repose settled at last on a tiny farm that sat in lonely isolation in the rural darkness. The day’s wash still hung hopefully on a line strung nearby – there, perhaps, to be fluffed dry by a soft spring breeze.
Near midnight, a young woman sat alone in her kitchen. Her husband and five children slept – resting, waiting for the rooster’s summons to another day of work. Night prayers said, her rosary beads slipped through her strong, hard-worn farmer’s wife’s fingers.
In four or five hours, those calloused hands would fashion the rich breakfasts needed to energize her family. Skillets would pop and sizzle with eggs and bacon. Pots of oatmeal would boil. Pancakes, thick and warm, would lay in wait for butter and syrup to coat their rich, mahogany tops. This would be the fuel for the minds and bodies that would soon rise to face the new day’s heavy labor.
Now, though, she waits in silence for the return of the thought that had visited her earlier in the day. In the cramped house around her, a child coughs. From the nearby barn drift the low moans of the cows, the earthy smell of manure. A hand-wound clock ticks loudly from its perch on a shelf. A lamp gently lays its dim glow across the oilcloth covered table.
The thought redeemed, she picks up her pencil. The tablet lays itself open to her will. Her own exhaustion and fatigue wander off for a moment. Through the pencil, her thoughts empty themselves onto the page:
Easter is here, and so’s the loan …
I’d like to have an Easter hat …
Hers was a hardscrabble farm life. She and her family were still living in a house that had once been a chicken coop. There was no room for wants like the latest fashions unless something else more sorely needed was cut. But the bulwarks of her life – her faith and church – insisted that no Mass, let alone Easter’s Mass, be missed. And that meant one’s very best clothes worn to celebrate the great feast of Christ’s rising.
With Easter Sunday coming, she worried now about what others might think of the worn clothes and old hat she must wear. She was a farmer’s wife – proud and serenely beautiful, too, if her wedding photo is any proof. Now, though, she pondered the choice between a new Easter bonnet and a loan payment.
Those who are familiar with Martha Gernatt’s life story know, of course, how she would choose. Her honest and unselfish nature would not allow otherwise. But her poem allows us a glimpse into that nature and the private temptation that crossed her mind that day.
… What is my beau’s or husband’s thought
If he should compare
Me with the beauties fashion wrought
In church on Easter there?
And of the decision to make the loan payment rather than to buy a hat?
How could I keep, the other way,
My cherished self-respect?
Decided now, temptation crushed, she allowed her gaze to sweep beyond herself and her sleeping family out through the night from that farmhouse kitchen, out across the ocean to the suffering and poor so far away:
What care our homesick soldier boys
And waifs in sacks and shawls?
What care they for my Easter joys
If I dare to play them false?
And closing, she challenges us:
Judge not my clothes on Easter day,
But judge me as a whole,
The only fair and honest way,
Is that you judge my soul.
Born in Germany in 1890, Martha came to the United States in 1904. Eventually, she found work in Springville. At 17 she married another immigrant, 19-year-old Janos (John) Gernatt. Together they bought a small farm on the reliable soil of the Town of Collins and moved into the only habitable structure, a henhouse, where they lived for about 12 years. There they raised 10 children.
Along with their children, they raised that farm through storms, disease and fire. Through self-discipline, good management and hard work, they grew their farm and, ultimately, prospered. They helped build a church. They milked cows, grew corn and raised pigs, chickens and turkeys. They timbered and trucked. And fought off tuberculosis.
Martha wrote poetry and kept a lengthy and detailed journal of their lives. She never complained about her “busy schedule.”
Along with their farm, the Gernatts also planted their name – and that grew, as well. It is a name widely known and admired. And there is hardly a person in southern Erie County who does not know and respect it. Their descendants could populate a small town – and seem to do just that at their annual family reunions.
Martha died in 1981. Long before that, had she desired it, she could have purchased enough hats to fill a barn. But, just as want couldn’t change her character, neither could plenty.
Now, Martha and John rest quietly where they belong, beside each other, on a gentle hill just a few miles from the farm where once, at night, she sat in her kitchen and wrote.
Timothy R. Allan, Ph.D., is a history professor at Fredonia State College. He is writing a book about family farming – specifically, the Richmond, Avery and Gernatt families in southern Erie County. The Gernatt family has generously shared Martha’s poetry, diary and business records with him.